I believe there’s a misconception about happy songs being played in a major key with sad songs being played in a minor key. There are many sad songs in a major key (The Beatles’ “For No One”, The Beach Boys’ “Warmth Of The Sun”, Neil Young’s “Helpless”) and happy songs in a minor key (“Hava Nagilah”, The Hollies’ “Bus Stop”). For some reason, be it by association with film scores or possibly some neurological explanation (not that I’d know), we still tend to associate (in Western society anyway) major-happy and minor sad.
One explanation for the examples of major-sad given above could possibly be due to tempo. I’m not sure I can think of too many sad major-key up-tempo songs. “From Above” by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby sort of fits the bill. However, Glenn Tilbrook’s “This Is Where You Ain’t” certainly fits the bill.
Tilbrook and songwriting partner, Chris Difford, had to endure the tag of being the new Lennon- McCartney when their band Squeeze first appeared on the scene in the late seventies. Who wants to live up to that? It is true that they could write insanely catchy songs. (Come to think of it some of their songs could fit the bill under major-sad-up-tempo). “Up The Junction” is about a broken relationship with a vivid description of being financially up the creek (or junction!!!!) “Some Fantastic Place” is dedicated to a recently departed friend. “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” is the catchiest song about wanking since Pete Townshend got off from “Pictures of Lily”. “Last Time Forever” is a major key song about spouse abuse. Difford and Tilbrook had an insanely catchy way with a melody and clever lyric.
When Tilbrook recorded his first solo album, he possibly topped the lot at confusing our collective neurons by recording “This Is Where You Ain’t”, the album’s opener. When I hear this and close my eyes, I picture the Motown house band. I think of the Four Tops. I imagine ever so slight but tasteful soul singer’s choreography. It’s a song with a happy major key melody over a catchy beat.
It’s also a song about the aftermath of divorce.
Tilbrook’s lyrics evoke his feelings after the separation from his wife. He seems regretful it’s come to this and he’s sitting alone with the memories of previous good times.
This is where we had some fun
This is where we ate
And now the fact I have to face is that
This is where you ain’t
Tilbrook’s wife ended up moving to Australia from the UK with their children:
I’m a long way from happy, you’re a long way from home
Of course, we’re only getting the poetic side of the story. There could have been shouting and dishes thrown and neglect, but that’s not how Tilbrook conveys his feelings here. One minute it was all good times, and the next it was all incredibly sad – and it’s all done to a deceptively happy sounding melody with a catchy beat.
Of course, if you’ve not heard the song and are just going by my description, it could be fair to say, “Maybe Tilbrook had it wrong. Maybe he should have slowed it all down or changed it to E minor”. Look, I can’t explain it in technical terms, but I think the melancholy the song conveys in its recorded version could not have worked if he’d changed anything about it. I don’t know how a great songwriter can successfully relay a downbeat story to an upbeat melody, but Tilbrook does it. A clever album compiler should put together an album of songs of this ilk and call it “Dancing With Hankies”.